Once Again, Lawmakers Take Up Elusive Ban on Single-Use Plastics

Version approved by committee prohibits use or sale of plastic and paper carryout bags, as well as polystyrene foam containers and plastic straws

Lawmakers in Trenton on Thursday took action again on a statewide ban on bags and other single-use plastics, after a similar measure failed to pass muster in the waning days of the last legislative session.

The Senate Environment and Energy Committee endorsed the new measure, with amendments — making it one of the panel’s first actions of the term, which began earlier this month.

“It’s here as the first item because it’s going to be the most important thing that we do in this two-year period,” said Democrat Bob Smith, the committee chair. “And we’re going to get it done.”

Environmentalists have long clamored for such a ban, saying that plastics are a major and long-lasting source of pollution in waterways and other sensitive areas.

“You need a statewide ban to move forward,” said Doug O’Malley of Environment New Jersey. “We already have a recycling crisis in this state.”

Thursday’s testimony felt like déjà vu, echoing as it did the process from the latest unsuccessful bid to approve the ban, and others that came before that.

“Every time we start to make some progress, someone stands up and says we haven’t done enough so we add more to the bill,” said Rocco D’Antonio, counsel for the New Jersey Food Council. “And for 15 years, we’ve added more to the bill.”

The version acted on by the panel Thursday prohibits the use or sale of plastic and paper carryout bags, as well as polystyrene foam containers for food service products and plastic straws. Environmentalists testified that the bill needs to include these other major sources of pollution to be effective.

Strewn over the landscape

Half of all plastics ever made were produced in the last 15 years, they maintained.

“We run stream cleanups, we run them in 13 communities every year,” said Mike Pisauro of the Watershed Institute. “Plastic bags, Styrofoam, straws are a huge chunk of it. They don’t weigh much. They don’t take up a whole lot of room. So, by volume or weight, they may be a small percentage, but they’re there.”

Several towns in the state have already instituted their own bans, but many others say they’re waiting for a cue from Trenton.

Among the items discussed Thursday were the thicker, reusable plastic bags being handed out by many retailers and whether they are any better for the environment.

The bags are supposed to hold up to 25 pounds and can be reused 125 times, but experts say that’s not the case.

“Do you think anyone is going to clean this bag? Do you think anyone is going to use this as a reusable plastic bag? No,” said Judith Enck, the former regional administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency for New Jersey.

Representatives of business and industry say the bill is too far-reaching. Others worried about how much it would cost businesses to comply with its terms.

“We think until we know that there are available, cost-effective, and safe alternatives that we should not be banning polystyrene,” said Raymond Cantor, vice president for government affairs for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

As amended, the measure that passed out of committee would put the ban into effect within 18 months of the governor signing it instead of two years. But as was noted Thursday, this effort has struggled for years and there’s no telling if this version will make it to governor’s desk.